Updated: May 19, 2020
Name: Mohamed Katri
Hometown: Alexandria, Egypt
Undergraduate: Alexandria University, Computer Engineering
Masters: Georgia Tech, Computer Science
Profession: Software Engineer at Microsoft, Seattle
Katri, Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am a software engineer at Microsoft here in Seattle. I grew up in Alexandria, Egypt. I studied Computer Engineering at Alexandria University. After graduation, I received my masters in Computer Science from Georgia Tech.
Let’s go back in time a little. When did you first consider applying to universities abroad?
The first time I considered applying abroad was when I was a freshman at Alexandria University. I was disappointed with the educational system and felt I deserved a better education. So I tried to apply independently to study abroad. I took the SATs and TOEFL and applied for an undergraduate program. I did not ask for any help and only applied to one university. I did not get accepted. That is actually why I think Bridges is a good idea - it would have helped someone like me at the time.
Ultimately, I decided to take advantage of my opportunities in Egypt, and decided to try to pursue my masters abroad.
How did you make the most out of your university experience in Egypt?
First, I self-study a lot. I used MIT’s open courses, Coursera, Udacity, etc. I did internships. I also tried to contribute to open source projects. For example, I wrote a network driver for an educational OS called Minix.
I was excited about research at the time, and that is why I participated in summer@EPFL in Switzerland. I learned about the summer research internship at EPFL through a friend. I submitted a resume and a cover letter, so it was simple to apply. I think part of why I got accepted was because they were able to see my contributions on GitHub to open source projects. The summer experience was a helpful step in my career, and it developed my interest in high performance computing.
The summer after, I was honestly a bit later in applying for internships. Usually people apply in September or October, earlier in the year. I pursued my internship at the time in Nezal, a social video games startup in Alexandria, and I would say the technology talent there was high. They allowed me to experiment with technologies like Node.js which was new at the time.
In general, I strongly recommend anyone get an internship to get experience. Participating in programming competitions, such as ACM’s ICPC, is probably the best way to make your internship applications competitive. But if that’s not for you, like it wasn’t for me, then open source contributions are the other way you can develop your skills and make your knowledge visible.
When did you consider pursuing your masters abroad?
During my last year of university, I started researching how to apply for a masters. I had learned this time that it is not wise to apply for one university, so I made a list of universities that I liked and that seemed suitable for my interests. I researched universities that offered scholarships or had a tuition fee that seemed reasonable for my family’s situation. I applied to some top schools, some “reach” and some “safe” options. In total, I applied to 6 universities in different countries, and got accepted into all of them. I ended up choosing Georgia Tech.
Why did you choose Georgia tech?
First, Georgia Tech’s CS program is ranked among one of the highest value for money in the US. It is a really good public program, and it is less expensive than the UCs. There are many brilliant professors covering cutting edge research. There were many career fairs and recruiters from different top companies came to recruit.
I was able to get an internship at Google during my summer at Georgia Tech. After graduating, I also received many job offers and ended up accepting an offer at Microsoft.
Something I learned while I was there is that the program was very intense and demanding, at least for me. It had a negative impact on my mental health, and there was little support. That’s different from experiences that friends at other universities shared with me, where they felt more supported during their studies.
How did funding fit in the picture?
Georgia Tech's School of Computer Science has a massive online CS program with a lot of students and needs many Teaching Assistants (TAs). This means that, by performing well, there is a higher chance you can be a TA which waives your tuition and pays a small stipend for the semesters you’re teaching. For me that was a great opportunity to teach and get my tuition waived.
Tell us more about how you prepared your application?
Most universities ask for 3 letters. My advice here is that at least one letter needs to be from a professor who is actually published. There should be at least one or two professors who know you personally and know how to write a letter of recommendation. The head of the distributed systems lab where I interned at EPFL wrote me a letter of recommendation. He knew me personally and he was established in his field. My second letter was written by a University of Alexandria professor who studied abroad himself and was well-spoken. He knew what a letter of recommendation was, sought comments from TAs about my performance, and took the time to get to know me.
GRE and TOEFL
Practice! Practice a lot in a simulated environment including speaking into microphones and typing essays into computers under time constraints. There are many online platforms that give you this opportunity. I know everybody studies hard, but ultimately because these tests are taken digitally you need to also practice for the examination method. Fast error-free typing gives you an advantage. In small and crowded Egyptian testing centers where everyone is being loud, you need to be able to focus and, when it’s your turn, to speak loudly too into a weak microphone for the TOEFL's speaking section. For me that was awkward, and I practiced.
For the GRE, make flash cards for the qualitative reasoning section. For me, learning about the etymology of words helped me. Maybe that is specific to how my brain works, but I used Google to learn about the etymology of words and this helped me memorize less and guess better.
Finally, take the tests early and do not shy away from retaking them.
Do you have any other advice for students?
Google things. There are a ton of great resources that are relevant to your own field of study. If you research online, you will find examples of how to write a great personal statement, study online, and take online courses. Take advantage of the internet.
Finally, know your options: research not just the universities, but also programs and labs, and take the time to figure out the pros and cons of your choices and rank them.